Unseasonably mild weather has at least one unwelcome side-effect — the potential for an encounter with a small creature with a serious bite.
Tick-borne illnesses have been on the rise in the lakes area in recent years. Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, and Mille Lacs counties are all in the areas of highest tick-borne disease risk in the state. The illnesses may be severe, even deadly. But protection and early detection are simple keys to combat what can be a debilitating illness.
“Crow Wing County continues to be an endemic county,” said Gwen Anderson, registered nurse and Crow Wing County public health nurse manager, in noting the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses in this region. “It kind of goes without saying now. It’s here. It’s here to stay. There is no vaccine that’s going to be on the market anytime soon so the best protection is to know your environment and know what to look for, check yourself often and use a repellent.”
Tick-borne illnesses — Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, even the more rare babesosis — are on the rise.
Ticks are already active in the lakes area, as pet owners can attest. Prime tick-feeding periods typically begin in mid-May through mid-July and pick up again in September. But the season is getting longer. Anderson said county staff were picking deer ticks off their dogs in February this year.
The ticks like a damp environment. They don’t like dry conditions and warm temperatures. In dry conditions, ticks crawl down to the forest floor. On humid and wet days, ticks crawl up a few inches and wait for a host to walk by so they can attach and begin their search for a preferred bite spot, such as an arm pit, the head, or places of constriction.
Anderson said ticks are unlikely to leave a pet if they’ve already taken a bite, but unattached ticks may migrate from a pet and be attracted to the warmer output of a human being.
The culprit in all of this is the small black-legged tick, commonly called the deer tick after their familiar woodland host. The ticks live in brushy area populated by white-footed mice, deer and other mammals. The state reports black-legged ticks are not found everywhere deer live. Black-legged ticks, which can live two to three years, find hosts by waiting on the tips of low-lying vegetation and shrubs, not trees, the state health department reports. The ticks don’t jump or fly — they crawl. Because the deer ticks in the spring-feeding nymph stage carry the disease along with the adults people may be bitten but never know it. Illness may come without the often tell-tale rash associated with the bite of a Lyme disease carrying deer tick.
With the exception of the relatively new tick-borne disease Powassan, which is caused by a virus, the Minnesota Department of Health reports all other of the state’s tick-borne diseases are treatable with antibiotics.
To help people keep the basics in mind, the county is using an acronym to get its health message across. Appropriately they picked TICK.
• Tuck your pants into your socks.
• Insect repellent (Permethrin and 30 percent DEET are recommended)
• Check yourself for ticks often and be aware of how to remove them.
• Know signs and symptoms of tick illnesses.
Anderson, who has contracted anaplasmosis twice herself, said it’s hard to talk to a group of people without running into someone with personal experience with a tick-borne illness.
The state health department reports between 1986 and 2008, more than 11,000 cases of tick-borne diseases were reported in Minnesota.
During that time the majority were Lyme disease. Aitkin, Cass and Crow Wing counties are on a short six-county list in the state where anaplasmosis cases exceeded Lyme disease in 2010.
Updated numbers of reported tick-borne illnesses in the state are expected at the end of the month.
Anderson found a deer tick nymph on herself and within three weeks had an acute onset of a 103-degree fever, body chills, fatigue.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes open,” she said. Treatments of antibiotics typically lasts two to three weeks. Anderson said physicians in this area are aware of the symptoms. But she said visitors to the region may return home before symptoms set in and be treated by physicians less knowledgeable about tick-borne disease.
Health officials, who encourage active lifestyles and enjoyment of an all-too-short summer season, say the answer isn’t to stay inside but to take precautions.
“If you know you are going to be outside, just spray yourself,” Anderson said. She keeps an insecticide spray by the doors of her house, one in her vehicle and one in her purse.
In a recent look at emergency preparedness and known hazards in the county, tick-borne illnesses came up second after a possible tornado strike, Anderson said.
“That’s part of why we are doing this campaign,” Anderson said. “We know the trend (for contracting tick-borne illnesses) continues to go up.”
For more information, go to the Minnesota Department of Health website www.health.state.mn.us and click on tick-transmitted diseases.